Dispatches > The Buzz

Hucksterism as religion

Making materialistic disciples, lying low while the world burns, and a coal miner's son makes good

Issue: "Smoking guns," March 6, 1999

Prince of propaganda
Long before Dick Morris and James Carville, there was Eddie Bernays, the prince of propaganda. Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye calls him "The Father of Spin." His book (Crown) details the man who peddled Enrico Caruso, General Electric, General Motors, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the ACLU. "Bernays was the man who, more than any other, got women to smoke, put bacon and eggs on breakfast tables, Ivory in soapdishes, books in bookshelves, and Calvin Coolidge back in the White House," he writes. Bernays was Sigmund Freud's nephew and demonstrated that a penchant for mischief-making ran in the family, His most notorious work was for the American Tobacco Company. He cooked up the slogan "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet." By enlisting doctors, fashion editors, and the Ziegfield Girls, he pushed a connection between smoking and thinness. Bernays even paraded debutantes up and down Fifth Avenue brandishing their "Torches of Freedom" on Easter Sunday, 1929. He was decades ahead in the radical chic game. But in his own home, things were different; Bernays fought with his wife Doris for years over her pack a day until her doctor scared her into quitting in the late 1940s. Later he joined the campaign to get tobacco ads off TV and claimed he didn't know back then cigarettes were dangerous. Author Tye calls Bernays's strategy "Big Think." Instead of just promoting a product, the spin doctor promoted fashions and behavior that opened people to buying a Cartier watch or a copy of The New Republic. He thought that his "scientific" brand of PR would save the world. Like Uncle Sigmund and every other manipulator and social engineer, Bernays reasoned that the scam actually did the mark a service. He believed in his hucksterism as a new religion-and hated the idea that the common man would make a decision without consulting the experts. Bernays's legacy lives on, says Mr. Tye, not because he created PR, but because he made media manipulation into a way of life. Nuclear family
Never mind Y2K. The scariest near-Armageddon America ever faced was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. And in Blast From The Past (New Line, rated PG-13 for language and adult themes) a mad scientist (Christopher Walken) builds a giant fallout shelter to protect himself and his pregnant wife (Sissy Spacek) from the Big One. As an Air Force plane accidentally crashes into his house, the scientist seals his family under the house with a 35-year time lock. And there they sit, with their battery power, a storehouse full of food and Dr. Pepper. Their little boy (Brendan Fraser) is born and grows to manhood, with only Honeymooners reruns to watch on a makeshift TV. Eventually the doors open and the son-named Adam because Dad thinks he'll have to repopulate the planet-must go back for supplies. Soon Adam meets a pretty store clerk named Eve (Alicia Silverstone) and sets off to restock the shelter. He is clueless about the Los Angeles of the '90s, but as you can expect, she teaches him about the world and he falls in love. The main couple is cute, and Adam's puppy-dog looks are perfect for the part. Interestingly, Eve finds Adam's post-war attitudes and mannerisms charming and not repressive. Adam's parents are eccentric, but they aren't played as right-wing kooks. Dad is brilliant but paranoid, and mom starts hitting the cooking sherry when her normal life as a housewife is ruined. The old man never accepts that there was no nuclear war and that the Soviet Empire is gone. After all, with so much invested in a disaster, how could he admit that all his effort was a waste? Rocky of the mines
It's 1957 and the Russians have just launched Sputnik and the space race is on. A teenage boy named Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the middle of a coal mining town is suddenly enthralled with rockets. His quest to put something in the air that doesn't blow up propels the family-friendly drama of October Sky (Universal Pictures, rated PG for mild language). For Homer, rockets become less a hobby and more a ticket to a new life. He doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps into the mine and a life of lungs filled with coal dust. To risk death, injury, and layoff just to survive looks more and more like a dead end. His brother has his sights on his own escape: a football scholarship to college. Homer and his accomplices set their sights on winning the national science fair so they can win the eyes of university recruiters looking for talent to fill their space-age science departments. Over his father's wishes, he feverishly fires rocket after rocket. Even Homer's high-school principal is unsympathetic, expecting him to lose and take his place with the miners. After all, what great man could come from a place like Coalwood, W.Va.? Mining communities often make for some bleak tales, yet October Sky, directed by Star Wars alumnus Joe Johnston, never becomes depressing. This movie does a fine job of looking back at a time when a college education was a privilege not taken for granted. Based on the real-life Homer's autobiography, it plays like a sports movie (Universal's ads compared it to Rocky). The event is a science fair and the goal is the American dream. This movie is weak on characterization and gets a little trite toward the end, but this can be forgiven. October Sky packs a message once commonplace but now unfashionable: Hard work, dedication, and a good education can breed success. Instead of complaining about being "exploited" by his meager circumstances, Homer launches himself toward a better life.

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